Protesters at a candle-lit vigil to mark the international day to end violence against sex workers in London in December 2014 (Getty Images)

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Is it ever OK to buy sex? The question at the heart of the Select Committee prostitution inquiry

The confusing, contradictory laws surrounding sex work in the UK need addressing but the response to the Home Affairs Select Committee prostitution inquiry does little to suggest an agreeable resolution is at hand

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By Cherry Casey on

On January 15 2016, the Home Affairs Select Committee launched an inquiry into prostitution. Its focus – “whether the balance in the burden of criminality should shift to those who pay for sex rather than those who sell it” – was seen as an indication that a sex buyers’ law, which was introduced to Sweden in 1999 and Northern Ireland in 2015, may be introduced in England and Wales.

This is despite the fact that the decriminalisation campaign seemed to make significant headway during 2015. Amnesty International’s announcement that it would be drafting a policy to back global decriminalisation was of course a landmark move, while Jean Urquhart MSP’s proposed decriminalisation bill was a significant step in Scotland. The managed area in Leeds, while not the same as decriminalisation, indicated a shift in attitudes towards sex work, as did the National Police Chiefs' Council guidelines, which were introduced last month.

These guidelines were co-written by assistant chief constable Nikki Holland, who was called to give oral evidence to the inquiry last Tuesday, March 1. While open-minded about criminalising the purchase of sex, she said, research she’d seen did suggest that it “would just drive [sex work] underground”.

This argument is key to the decriminalisation campaign – if the buyers become criminals, the safety of sex workers becomes jeopardised. Laura Lee, a sex worker who was also invited to give evidence on Tuesday, explains that in Northern Ireland, clients are now refusing to be screened, giving sex workers less control over who they accept.

“The premises will be shut down, the good clients won’t come anymore and I’ll get the worst of the worst,” agrees Ana Popa, a London sex worker. “I’ll have to do things that I don’t want to do to make money in order to survive, and the violence will grow.”

Violence is a bone of contention within the debate. While decriminalisation backers argue that a sex buyers’ law will make them more vulnerable to violence, those fighting to “end demand”, such as Kat Banyard, Co-director of UK Feminista, argue that prostitution i<is>i violence against women and the industry needs to be abolished in its entirety. “Society needs to send a message to the minority of the men who pay for sex that it is not an acceptable way to treat another person,” she argues.

Last Friday, Labour leader Jeremy Corbyn said that he is in favour of decriminalising sex work. ‘Let’s do things a bit differently and in a bit more civilised way,” he said when asked his views on the subject’ 

In its written evidence to the inquiry, however, National Ugly Mugs (NUM), an organisation that advocates for the protection and support of sex workers, contends this stance: “The definition of sex work as ‘violence against women’ is deeply flawed, removing sex workers’ rights to consent and erasing the experiences of male and trans.”

Popa, too claims that this stance is patronising. “Sex work is not violence,” she argues. “For someone to tell me that I don’t have a brain to think for myself and I can’t see that all clients are perverts, rapists and paedophiles – that’s outrageous.”

This notion that sex workers are not being allowed to choose what they do with their own body resurfaces frequently, and highlights the most polarising component of the entire debate: is it ever OK to exchange sex for money?

“If there’s no violence, no coercion, what’s wrong with people doing this, why does the state have a role?” asks Labour MP Keith Vaz, who chaired Tuesday’s session. Last Friday, Labour leader Jeremy Corbyn said that he is in favour of decriminalising sex work. “I want to be [in] a society where we don’t automatically criminalise people. Let’s do things a bit differently and in a bit more civilised way,” he said when asked his views on the subject.

But Mia De Faoite, a former sex worker fighting to end demand, says. “I don’t believe anyone has the right to buy another human being.”  When questioned about the complicated nature of consent, De Faoite explains – in regards to a particularly distressing event in her past – “I didn’t have a gun to my head, but I had heroin in my veins.”  

Popa, however, argues, “I have chosen to be a sex worker, so let me be a sex worker. It’s my body, my right…If your number one priority is my safety then allow me to have better working conditions, allow me to work in safety, allow me to not have a criminal record which stops me from having a different job.”

Jean Urquhart also argues that her bill focuses on safety, not the moral implications of exchanging sex for money. “I’m not saying that prostitution is a good thing,” she says. “What I am saying is, people who are involved in the sex industry should have the same human rights as anyone else.”

In New Zealand – the English Collective of Prostitutes (ECP) argues in its written evidence to the inquiry – these human rights have improved since decriminalisation was introduced in 2003, with over 90 per cent of sex workers believing they had additional employment, legal, health and safety rights.

Jamie Todd-Gher, human rights advocate and adviser at Amnesty International also concedes that results in New Zealand have been primarily positive. “Sex workers feel more able to go to the police when they encounter violence,” she says. “They feel empowered to demand their rights, and through that process of decriminalising sex work they ensured that exploitation within the context of sex work remained criminalise.”

The success rate in Sweden is more opaque. Banyard argues that street prostitution was down by 50 per cent, according to research by the Swedish government, while the NUM argue that, according to research by Dr Jay Levy, Sweden ‘has failed to achieve any of its stated aims’. 

Hazy “facts”, particularly around trafficking, characterise the sex work debate. At the evidence session on Tuesday, claims that 50 per cent of sex workers entered the industry as a child, 50 per cent are Eastern European and trafficked, and 90 per cent in Ireland were trafficked, were all referenced at various points.

Nikki Holland, meanwhile, said the Association of Chief Police Officers research calculated 10 per cent of sex workers were trafficked, while the ECP argue that research by Dr Nick Mai suggested it to be six per cent.

While evidence such as this needs to be clarified, arguably the most important stat, as Popa points out, is that “100 per cent of sex workers do it for money”. If you want to see the end of sex work, she argues, “stop cutting the benefits, stop cutting housing, and give us gender equality when it comes to wages so mothers wouldn’t have to enter prostitution, which they do because of poverty”.

The inquiry is currently in its early stages; further oral evidence sessions are due to come over the following weeks, with the Home Affairs Select Committee estimating that a report will be written up in early June. So, while MPs, feminists, academics and the police carry on the debate, sex workers – and their needs, their safety and their rights – continue to hang in the balance.


Protesters at a candle-lit vigil to mark the international day to end violence against sex workers in London in December 2014 (Getty Images)
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